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Not the old superpower. Still...

Thursday, 20 March 2014 | Mayuri Mukherjee | in Oped

The crisis in Ukraine, which has culminated in the ‘accession’ of its Crimean Province to the Russian Federation, is not just a victory for Vladimir Putin. It marks the return of a resurgent Great Power to the international stage

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, following a controversial referendum in the peninsula that has been deemed illegitimate by the United States, the European Union and the incumbent Government of Ukraine, has expectedly stoked fears of another Cold War. While some of these concerns maybe over-stated, there is no looking away from the fact that the political crisis in Ukraine, which has culminated in the accession of its Crimean Province to the Russian Federation, marks the return of a resurgent Great Power to the international stage in a manner that it has not been seen since the end of the Cold War. On the other end, it also highlights the limits of Western powers which have struggled to respond to the crisis in an effective and cohesive manner, and have found themselves on the backfoot every step of the way. The crisis should perhaps also force a re-think on Nato’s mandate and purpose.

That the US-EU-Nato combine clearly failed to assess Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response to the ouster of Mr Viktor Yanukovich, the democratically elected President of Ukraine ,who was also Kremlin’s man in Kiev, goes without saying. This, at least partly, seems to be because the West never cared to put itself in President Putin’s position — as is evidenced from the international community’s entirely anti-Russia rhetoric on the issue. The entire blame is being laid at President Putin’s doorstep for ‘invading’ Ukraine and ‘violating its territorial integrity’, when, in fact, the West is just as much responsible. After all, aggressive Nato expansionism was bound to rankle Moscow. Yet, successive regimes in Washington, DC, continued with its eastward movement in a manner that has only served to incite Russia.

As Mr Malcolm Fraser, the former Prime Minister of Australia, notes in The Guardian: “The then (Soviet Union) President, (Mikhail Sergeyevich) Gorbachev , in negotiating with US Secretary of State, James Baker, had insisted that Nato should not move one foot east — this was an area of traditional Russian influence. President (Bill) Clinton pushed to expand the Nato alliance to the very borders of Russia. There was talk of Ukraine and Georgia being included.” True, Ukraine eventually turned down offers to join Nato but as Mr Fraser explains, “The move east... was provocative, unwise and a very clear signal to Russia: We are not willing to make you a co-operative partner in the management of European or world affairs; we will exercise the power available to us and you will have to put up with it.” And that is not all: “The message was re-emphasised years later, when President Bush sought to place elements of the anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic. America said this was aimed at Iran. Russia would not have believed that. The West was acting as though the Cold War still persisted”.

Similarly, the secession of Kosovo from Serbia, which happened in Russia’s backyard and despite Moscow’s reservations, is yet another example of Western high-handness. That President Putin used the example set in Kosovo to justify his annexation of Crimea shows how things are now coming full circle. In his victory speech at the Kremlin on Tuesday, Mr Putin said: “The Crimean authorities referred to the well-known Kosovo precedent — a precedent our Western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities.” 

In response, some Western experts have sought to distinguish the Kosovo case from Crimea on the ground that the secession of the former was necessitated by enormous bloodshed. While a high death toll may make for a compelling argument for it, secession is still very much a violation of the principal of territorial integrity that the West now seeks to uphold against Russia — a fact that Mr Putin has also underlined. 

For now, it seems like there is little to stop Mr Putin, who is possibly looking to flesh out his dream of the Eurasian Union, essentially a vast trade block to rival the EU, which up until now had received little international attention. The West, on its part, has begun imposing sanctions on individual Russian leaders and threatened additional ‘costs’ amidst loud protestations of “land grab” and “theft on an international scale”. But none of these seem to have perturbed President Putin much.

Russia does only limited business with the US; its main trading partner is the EU which buys Russian gas. It is unlikely that Europe, hamstrung by its own financial troubles, will be willing to bear a high cost. Indeed, as we decide to what extent the West will be willing to convert its high-pitched talk against an ‘aggressive’ Russia into punitive action, it is important to remember that neither the EU nor definitely the US has the kind of interests which Russia has in Crimea. Not only does Russia have historical ties with the penninsula that goes back centuries, Crimea has also been the base for its Black Sea Fleet for 200 years at Sevastopol. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lease agreement valid till 2042 allows the Russian fleet to continue operating in Sevastopol in exchange for discounted natural gas. This lease also allows Russia to station 161 aircraft, 388 warships and 25,000 armed men in Crimea (which Mr Putin used to justify the presence of his armed forces during March 16 referendum).

Indeed, India’s National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon had also mentioned “legitimate Russian interests” in Crimea — and his statement did raise some eyebrows around the world. The statement, even if carefully couched in diplomatese, showed Indian support for Russia, a long-standing friend, at a time when the latter has been virtually isolated. This must also be viewed alongside the official statement from the Ministry of External Affairs, which not only refrained from condemning Moscow’s actions but also kept out the routine mention of “respect for territorial integrity” etc. It is no surprise then that President Putin has not only thanked India for “showing restraint” but also later telephoned Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to apprise him of the developments.

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